Barnett enjoys 'fun, spirited' practice

Updated: August 10, 2004, 1:31 AM ET
Associated Press

BOULDER, Colo. -- The Colorado Buffaloes gathered at the middle of the practice field, hooting and hollering and giving each other high-fives. A brief meeting with the coach followed, then the team huddled together, let out a cheer and walked away smiling and patting each other on the back.

After a tumultuous offseason that nearly cost coach Gary Barnett his job and put the program's recruiting practices into question, the Buffaloes returned to practice for the first time on Monday.

And boy, was it good to be back.

"It was a good practice, a good, fun, spirited practice as you would expect," Barnett said. "I think everybody is just really happy to get on the field and get back to what we really enjoy doing. And that includes me."

Colorado went through an offseason unlike any other anywhere before.

Nine women claimed they were sexually assaulted by football players or recruits since 1997. Three of those sued the university, claiming they were raped at an off-campus party in 2001.

An investigative panel was formed to determine whether sex and alcohol were used as recruiting tools. Barnett was suspended for three months for insensitive comments he made about former kicker Katie Hnida, who said she was raped by a teammate in 2000.

So instead of concentrating on football, Colorado's players spent the offseason defending themselves, their program and their university. Getting back to the practice field after all of that was a huge relief.

"We were just excited to get out on the field and get our helmets back on," Buffaloes quarterback Joel Klatt said. "It's a great feeling to be out here and we're excited to move forward with camp."

No one was more excited than Barnett.

He spent most of the offseason away from his program and players, devoting most of his time to answering questions from reporters, an investigative panel and a grand jury.

Barnett was suspended in February and didn't get reinstated until after Colorado had completed its spring drills under interim coach Brian Cabral.

So with a whistle around his neck and his trademark visor pulled down low, Barnett was all smiles as he walked off the practice field.

"When this is your life, the chance to get back out there and be with your guys is what it's all about for me," Barnett said.

It was especially gratifying considering Barnett didn't know if he would be allowed to return.

An independent commission found that Barnett was resistant to change and should have had better control of his program. It wasn't clear if he'd be brought back until just a few days before he was reinstated in May.

"Did I have doubts? There were times when I wondered how things were going to go -- the decision wasn't in my hands," he said. "But I always pictured myself back out here."

So did the players.

As Barnett sat in his office responding to e-mails and letters from supporters, Colorado's players never wavered in their support of him. They went through spring drills under Cabral, but always expected it would be Barnett calling the shots once summer camp started.

So once that first whistle blew, it was as if nothing ever happened.

"It was just like any other first day of practice," Klatt said. "Everyone's happy to be out here. It was a long summer and we're glad it's over."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press